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World Mental Health Day: A Cognitive Therapy Toolbox

I’ve been a science project since I was a troubled teen sitting across from my first shrink.

I’ve warmed a lot of therapists’ office chairs since then, and experimented with various strategies at different times. I’ve journaled and created rituals and signed contracts. I talked to the empty chair and my inner child. I’ve projected and rejected and introspected. It’s been a lifeline and hobby.

My therapists all dabbled in an array of theories and practices, but the one they all had in common, and that has provided me with the most useful tools, is cognitive therapy, which addresses thinking patterns.

Nothing newfangled about cognitive therapy. Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck first proposed it in the 1960s. It  grew popular in the 1970s, and today is  it’s the go-to for efficient therapy. One recent study finds it’s even helpful to people with schizophrenia. If it can help that kind of disordered thinking, it can help anyone.

Cognitive therapy has provided me a toolbox of useful techniques that work for nearly any mental or emotional jam I find myself in. I don’t journal much anymore, or talk to empty chairs, or write letters and burn them, but I pull out these sturdy cognitive tools again and again.

Emotion ID: If you need to fix the plumbing, you don’t go to the fuse box. Before you can fix anything, you have to know what’s broken  But emotions can be tricky. Sadness can turn outwards into anger, anger can turn inwards into depression. Sometimes it takes a moment (or twelve) to identify the trouble behind the trouble. When I’m feeling buffeted or overwhelmed, I pause to put a name to the emotion, then take it from there.

Internal GPS: You can’t get around Paris with a map of Rome. The map of the world you were handed in childhood might not be useful today. When I’m feeling lost or scared or otherwise crappy, I check to make sure I’m not trying to navigate life with an outdated map.

Reality Check: Is your view of what’s happening skewed by emotion? Looking through a reality check lens of dispassion allows you to compare your perception with concrete facts. For example: Feel like no one loves you? Count all the people who do, and the ones who would if you let them. That’s the reality, your feelings are about something else. Sometimes I can reality check myself, sometimes I need assistance from my husband or a friend.

Reframing: Take the dark frame of fear or anxiety or disappointment off your perception of a situation and replace it with something brighter and more forgiving. Or at least benign. What if you frame someone else’s behavior as resulting from insecurity rather than malevolence? Or a situation as a bummer rather than a disaster? Is it possible the person who offended you wasn’t thinking about you at all but had other worries? Just try such thoughts on, then take step back from the situation and see how they look.

New research and ideas are fun to think about and talk about and experiment with, but in the end, I always return to these techniques, which have  proven to work in the laboratory of my life.

Photo by Terry Madeley via Flickr (Creative Commons).

World Mental Health Day: A Cognitive Therapy Toolbox

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). World Mental Health Day: A Cognitive Therapy Toolbox. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Oct 2011
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